General Principles of Orchestration

General Principles of Orchestration | Music Composition Lessons in New York

I teach music composition lessons online. Often an area of study we focus on in great detail is orchestration. This is of tremendous importance to all Film and Video game composers. I have included below some general principles to keep in mind when writing a piece for full orchestra. If this seems in anyway confusing or too complex why not drop me an email and ask about online music composition lessons.


General Principles

Harmonic Balance

Balance can be defined when instruments combine, balance and match in such a way that each chord sounds as one unit and when no notes protrude, disappear, or seem foreign to the overall timbre of the chord.

It can be said that balanced harmony aims for equality between the different notes of any given chord – as in the kind of harmonic equality easily found by playing the chord on the piano.

Harmonic balance is most simply achieved if identical instruments are available, as for

instance, six violins playing in six note harmony


Ex 1.



If it is necessary to use different timbres in the same chord, the working out of satisfactory harmonic balance can be an elaborate procedure, with many limitations and ramifications

The following is an example where balanced harmony is not possible as each of the six instruments have almost nothing in common with each other

Ex. 2


The C-major chord presented in this fashion could nevertheless be identified as a C-Major chords due to its familiarity. However the more extended the harmony the more need for instruments that will produce a balance. Otherwise it may seem as merely six unrelated notes.

Requirements for harmonic balance are as follows

  1. Identical Volume on each note in the chord
  2. Identical or similar tone quality on each note, (we will cover later the criteria for determining degrees of similarity sufficient for harmonic balance)
  3. Identical thickness or thinness on each note. The term thickness, fullness, and thinness are used to define the following

Four Violins playing this passage in unison will obviously produce a thinner sound than eight, ten or twelve violins in unison playing the same passage. The tone quality is substantially the same, the volume can be the same, the difference is in thickness and thinness only. 

  1. Identical articulations for all of the instrumental parts


When all four conditions have been met, the resulting sound is clear, balanced harmonic unit, or a harmonic succession, in which the closest synchronous relationships between all the notes in each chord is achieved.


If certain notes persistently protrude, disappear or seem foreign in tone quality, the trouble can be traced to some inequality of volume, timbre or fullness.


Some examples would be

Openness can be matched, but the open trumpet will stand out because of it’s much greater fullness.

In this example a balance in volume can be achieved but the “nasality” of the oboe will cause it to stand out.

In the final example the timbre will match – both sound nasal – but the oboe is unable to match the volume of pp. At best a mild mf will occur.

Interested in music composition lessons in New York City, or online worldwide?

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Posted on June 5, 2013 in Music Composition

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About the Author

An award-winning composer, accomplished musician and sonic storyteller, Douglas Gibson resides in New York City, where he composes and gives music composition lessons locally and online worldwide.
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